The Oglala Lakotas build a self-determined future amid memories of a bloody history. By Diana Plater.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Credit: Laura Simon / Flickr

As the high-20s heat dropped overnight to four degrees, I drove east through the misty, surreal shapes of the Badlands of South Dakota. I’d come from Deadwood, the former Wild West town made more famous in recent years by the HBO TV series, with its street actors re-enacting famous shootouts with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. My invitation was to attend the annual buffalo round-up at Custer State Park, where buffalo are corralled and vaccinated in front of tourists. But higher in my mind was the chance to at last visit Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

I read Dee Brown’s cult classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee when I was a teenager, and was fascinated by its story of the clash between the United States Army, early settlers and Native Americans, culminating in the massacre at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge on December 29, 1890.

I’d since read another book that told the media’s role in the story – Eyewitness at Wounded Knee – about how photographers were “embedded” with the army and took hundreds of photos of bodies frozen in the snow, including Sioux chief Big Foot. The local newspapers tried to tell the truth of a desperate people caught up in a cult known as the Ghost Dance, preached by a Paiute shaman, Wovoka, who prophesied that the dead and the living would soon live once more in the old way. By wearing brightly coloured shirts with images of eagles and buffaloes and performing the Ghost Dance they would be protected from bullets. But following the massacre “eastern coasters” faked photos by posing dead bodies with rifles and intentionally misidentified several prominent Indians, selling the photos for extravagant prices to a public hungry for sensationalism.

I turned south through tiny Interior, where a roughly painted sign proclaimed it the oldest town in the Badlands, and on through rolling pine-covered hills and ridges. 

About 28,000 people live on the Pine Ridge reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation (Oglala Sioux Tribe), covering about 9000 square kilometres. Bordering the Nebraska state line to the south and the Badlands to the north, it was originally part of the Great Sioux Reservation established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This, like most treaties, was ignored when the US government opened up millions of acres of the Black Hills to the west to homesteaders and goldminers.

Unlike most Australian Aboriginal reserves I have visited, the public doesn’t need a permit and instead of one large community and outstations at Pine Ridge there are smaller settlements, towns and outlying farms. As you drive south it becomes poorer; every few kilometres you spot trailers surrounded by piles of old cars and farm machinery. I followed a pick-up pulling a house for 15 minutes until it turned into a dusty driveway, then headed past yellow and blue local tribal election posters pinned to fences and through the small town of Kyle.

I found my motel, the Lakota Prairie Ranch, and was somewhat startled by a sign suggesting guests use a pink rag to “clean spills, shoes, guns etc”. I seemed to be the only tourist among a few locals in the restaurant despite a delicious dinner.

The next morning while waiting for my guide at the Chamber of Commerce I met tribal historic preservation officer/director Mike Catches Enemy, who shed light on some of the history, explaining that the soldiers who took part in the Wounded Knee battle were remnants of the 7th Cavalry who had been defeated at Custer’s Last Stand 14 years before, intent on revenge.

In pouring rain I drove with my guide, Warren (Gus) Yellow Hair, to the memorial, the site of the mass grave of about 300 Lakota men, women and children. Yellow Hair quietly told me there were mixed feelings in the reservation as to how to properly commemorate this history. If it was good weather today there would have been people selling arts and crafts.

“Some would like to see this kept as a sacred site,” he said, such as at the small but significant mountain, Bear Butte, further north near Sturgis, where prayer cloths are tied to trees and Native Americans come regularly to pray.

A large red sign explained that Big Foot and about 350 of his followers were camped at Wounded Knee Creek that freezing morning. A shot was fired and chaos broke out. Twenty-five soldiers also died that day. But while scattered fighting continued for several days afterwards, this was the end of the Ghost Dance movement and the Indian wars.

Despite this traumatic history, the Lakota today welcome tourists to share their culture, achievements and art, beautiful examples of which can also be bought in the closest big town, the stylish Rapid City. In the Woksape Tipi Library at Oglala Lakota College, archivist Tawa Ducheneaux said they were collecting and archiving Lakota historic resources, including a “few thousand boxes” of artefacts of the tribe’s records.

“We have a long history of our cultural history leaving the Badlands,” she said.

Ducheneaux’s name reflects her French heritage – French fur traders were the first non-Native Americans to come through this country.

The successful college, founded in the 1970s, has about 1500 students. Each of the reservation’s nine districts has a centre within it and there’s also a satellite college and library at Rapid City. Now nearly 60 per cent of the nurses on the reservation are graduates of the college and 70 per cent of the teachers are locals. Yellow Hair had also recommended the radio station staffed by college journalism graduates, KILI-FM, to catch up with what’s happening on the “res”. The students also work at the local cable TV station.

At the nearby historical centre, Wanda Reddy, a direct mail clerk, told me she studied business at the college.

What if there hadn’t been that opportunity?

“I would have worked in a grocery store,” she said.

Tourists are welcome at the centre, particularly when there are artists in residence, from late June to early September. Graduation powwows are also open to the public. Private ceremonies are still held, during which people are given Lakota names. Yellow Hair was named Tasunka Najin by his uncle, which means His Horse Is Standing. At your puberty ceremony your name is changed, only the first of several such changes during the course of one’s life.

“Having a Lakota name means when I pass on my ancestors will know me,” he told me.

Among drive-by food places at the town of Pine Ridge, such as Taco John’s, I found the cosy Higher Ground Coffee House, owned by Belva Matthews and chef husband Leon, who bases the exotic food on recipes his mother gave him. A photographer too, I told him by coincidence I’d only that morning read his blog, “Rez Ramblings” in the Lakota Country Times – one of two Native American newspapers covering the area.

My last stop was the Red Cloud Indian School, which was started by the Oglala chief Red Cloud and Jesuits of the Holy Rosary Mission in 1888. Community relations associate and former student Rilda Means showed us around. The passionate 24-year-old’s mother was a teacher. Means herself graduated from the Black Hills State University with a master’s in Lakota leadership and management and wants to be a tribal lawyer.

On a reservation featuring the usual social problems caused by poverty and lack of opportunity, the school is remarkable in that 98 per cent of its senior year graduates, Means explained, showing me some of their names carved into the bricks in the old Drexel Hall.

Kids travel “1000 miles a day in 18 buses” to come to a school where Lakota culture and basketball is “a big deal”.

“Every day we teach them you have a chance,” she said.

Tours are available and there’s also a renowned heritage centre museum, displaying Native American art, including a 10,000-piece beadwork collection made by Red Cloud’s wife and porcupine quillwork, as well as a gift shop.

 As the sun fought its way through the petering late afternoon rain, I headed north along the Red Shirt Table Road, near the western border of Pine Ridge. The spires and pinnacles of the Badlands emerged again as I wished for more time with the resilient people of the rez.


The writer was a guest of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Breathtaking Badlands".

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Diana Plater is a freelance journalist who specialises in the arts.

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